A fond thing, vainly invented, grounded upon no warranty of Scripture

As our Mother, you love us and know us: no concern of our hearts is hidden from you. Mother of mercy, how often we have experienced your watchful care and your peaceful presence! ...We now turn to you and knock at the door of your heart. We are your beloved children. In every age you make yourself known to us, calling us to conversion ... You are able to untie the knots of our hearts and of our times. In you we place our trust ... O Mother, may your sorrowful plea stir our hardened hearts. May the tears you shed for us make this valley parched by our hatred blossom anew ... Accept this act that we carry out with confidence and love. Grant that war may end and peace spread throughout the world ... Our Lady of the “Fiat”, on whom the Holy Spirit descended, restore among us the harmony that comes from God. May you, our “living fountain of hope”, water the dryness of our hearts ... You once trod the streets of our world; lead us now on the paths of peace. Amen - the Act of Consecration of Ukraine and Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, prayed by Pope Francis on 25th March 2022.

In 2009 the General Synod of the Church of Ireland passed a Declaration which, while reaffirming that the Articles of Religion, with the Prayer Book, Ordinal, and Declaration of 1870, "are a definition of the faith as proclaimed by the Church of Ireland", also stated that "negative statements towards other Christians should not be seen as representing the spirit of this Church today".

It was an understandable statement (not least in the Irish context), reflecting moves in other Christian traditions to prevent Reformation and Counter-Reformation era condemnations from being used to incite sectarian and divisive attitudes. Perhaps the most significant example of this was in the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Joint Declaration on Justification:

Thus the doctrinal condemnations of the 16th century, in so far as they relate to the doctrine of justification, appear in a new light: The teaching of the Lutheran churches presented in this Declaration does not fall under the condemnations of the Council of Trent. The condemnations in the Lutheran Confessions do not apply to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church presented in this Declaration.

The wording of the Joint Declaration needs to be carefully noted.  It is not, from a Lutheran perspective, that the Reformation-era condemnation of Roman teaching was erroneous: it is, rather, that it does not apply to contemporary Roman Catholic articulation of the doctrine of justification.  The condemnations still witness to truth.

At the heart of the Church of Ireland's 2009 Declaration is the statement that the Reformation-era condemnations in the Articles of Religion should "not be used in a manner hurtful to or antagonistic towards other Christians".  This repeats the earlier emphasis that Reformation-era condemnations do not represent "the spirit of this Church today" (emphasis added).  Our desire is for gracious, generous relationships with other Christian traditions. This, indeed, reflects the commitment made in the Declaration of 1870:

The Church of Ireland ... will set forward, so far as in it lieth, quietness, peace, and love, among all Christian people.

The 2009 Declaration does not, however, remove the doctrinal critiques expressed in the Articles of Religion: these remain part of the Articles and, thus, part of the Church of Ireland's formularies.  Yes, they should not be used in a spirit which undermines "quietness, peace, and love" amongst Christians: but, their condemnation of erroneous doctrine continues.

Which brings us to Article 22 and the Bishop of Rome's recent act of consecrating Ukraine and Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.  When I first read the prayer to the Blessed Virgin used in the act of consecration, I confess to being shocked: the unrelenting focus on Mary; ascribing to her a status and role that the liturgy, following Scripture, ascribes to God alone; little, if any, meaningful expression of the Church's Christocentric confession.

Some phrases were particularly striking. "No concern of our hearts is hidden from you": an Anglican cannot but help think of the Collect for Purity. "In you we place our trust": the echo of Coverdale's Psalter addressing the God of Israel rings in the ears. "Lead us now in the paths of peace": akin to the twice daily petition addressed to God in the 1662 daily office.

To take titles and petitions which Scripture and the liturgy address solely to God and apply it to a creature, even a creature as sanctified as the Blessed Virgin, is to disorder the Church's faith and prayer.  It is, in the words of Article 22, "a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture". This is not said to cause hurt or to be antagonistic.  

It is said to ensure that the extent of the "distinct differences" between our traditions are recognised and addressed in an authentic and fruitful ecumenical dialogue. It is said to differentiate the above expression of Marian teaching and piety from what ARCIC II described as that which is "scriptural and in accord with ancient common tradition".  It is said to enable Anglicans to recognise why our tradition gives modest expression, with Augustinian reserve, to Marian piety.

To be clear, I entirely embrace the ecumenical commitments of contemporary Anglicanism. I regularly read Roman Catholic theology and find myself deeply enriched by it. I take my yearly retreat at a Roman Catholic monastery and happily gather with the community at the end of Compline around an icon of the Theotokos, as they sing Salve Regina.  It is not a prayer I, as an Anglican, share in offering, but the Anglican tradition's reverence for the Blessed Virgin leads me to respectfully stand with my Roman Catholic brothers at they pray, and as I give thanks for - in Cranmer's words from 1549 - "the glorious and most blessed virgin Mary, mother of thy son Jesu Christ our Lord and God".

ARCIC II's statement Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ rightly noted, "we do not consider the practice of asking Mary and the saints to pray for us as communion dividing".  This was, however, on the basis of stating that "any concept of invocation which blurs the trinitarian economy of grace and hope is to be rejected, as not consonant with Scripture or the ancient common traditions". The above prayer, offered by Pope Francis, does - to Anglican (and probably quite a few Orthodox) ears - "blur the trinitarian economy of grace hope". And it certainly cannot be reconciled with Scripture or found in "the ancient common traditions".

The ARCIC II statement also set the context for understanding Article 22's condemnation:

Confronted with exaggerated devotion, stemming from excessive exaltation of Mary’s role and powers alongside Christ’s ...

It is a description which, unfortunately, applies to the above prayer and thus makes applicable the condemnation given in Article 22: "a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture".

It expresses, as Pusey put it, a "system as to the B.V. ... unknown as it was to the Ancient Church". He continued:

No one could (it should be thought) observe how through volumes of S. Augustine or S. Chrysostom, there is no mention of any reliance except on Christ Alone; and how in modern books, S. Mary is held out as ‘the refuge of sinners,’ as having ‘the goats committed to her, as Christ the sheep,’ as ‘the throne of grace,’ to whom a sinner may have easier access than to Christ, and seriously say, that the ancient and modern teaching and practice are the same.

The issue is a reminder of why retaining the Reformation-era condemnations contained in the Articles has continued relevance - while also ensuring that such condemnations are not misused to promote sectarianism or undermine normal ecumenical relationships.  

They do not prevent a meaningful ecumenical relationship with our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, seeking a deeper unity and communion.  They are not a rejection of the truth that Anglicans and Roman Catholics share more in common than divides us on the Blessed Virgin Mary and, say, the eucharistic sacrifice. They do, however, mean that those continued "distinct differences" are appropriately recognised by both communions, requiring further prayer, dialogue, and study.  They do demonstrate why there is not a fuller communion, and that this is not an accommodation to sectarianism and institutional interests but, rather, because of theological truth.  

Last Friday, in other words, was one of those occasions when Anglicans rightly and appropriately should have reached for Article 22.


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